Best of 2011: Can Occupy protests galvanize Obama?

In the Depression, FDR won re-election over populist insurgencies by running on a strong jobs and fairness platform. Obama, slower to respond, still might do the same, helped by the fading of the Tea Party. Here are some lessons from American history.

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Tea Party protesters marching in Philadelphia in 2009.

In the Depression, FDR won re-election over populist insurgencies by running on a strong jobs and fairness platform. Obama, slower to respond, still might do the same, helped by the fading of the Tea Party. Here are some lessons from American history.

Editor's Note: In the run-up to the new year, Crosscut is sharing ten days of its best stories from 2011, each with a different theme. Today we are looking at some of our coverage of the Occupy movement and the intersection of national and local politics. This story first appeared in October.

If it has done nothing else, Occupy Wall Street has pushed the Tea Party from the front page of American political coverage. There are similarities between the insurgent movements — the lack of identifiable leaders perhaps foremost  —but the Occupiers are a long way from forming a political opposition within one of the major parties, as the Tea Party has done within the Republican Party.

For President Barack Obama, beleaguered these days on all sides, the specter of such a rump movement contesting Democratic candidates in 2012 must be taken seriously, because it has precedent in the history of America’s last great economic meltdown, the Great Depression.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to surmount insurgencies with very identifiable leaders and win re-election in 1936. Like Obama, FDR came to office on the heels of great enthusiasm amongst supporters and inherited a many-faceted economic and social mess from his predecessor. Unlike Obama, he had solid, dependable majorities in both House and Senate, although, like Obama, he faced a Supreme Court with a conservative majority and no love for him in its collective heart.

Roosevelt overpowered his opposition and won a landslide victory in 1936. The Republicans nominated an obscure Kansas governor; FDR in the run-up to the campaign unveiled what would later become known as the Second New Deal. Within it were the building blocks of modern American society.

Roosevelt reacted to the protests and played on his immense personal popularity and ability to use radio to reach millions. Occupy Wall Street is the first sign that not all of Obama’s troubles come from the Right; he ignores this incipient movement at his peril. His new jobs program and tax-the-rich plan are a sign he knows of the danger, but his chances of successful legislative action are almost nil because he cannot call on Congress to do his will, as Roosevelt did in 1935-36.

Occupy Wall Street is frequently compared to the various protest movements of the 1960-70 era, largely because of the similarly youthful protestors. Most of the protestors in 1968 were either in school or the offspring of employed middle-class parents. The economy was doing just fine and seldom figured into the protests. The Vietnam War and civil rights were the galvanizing issues in the 1960s.

In 1935 the nation was mired in the Great Depression and as much as a quarter of the workforce was without work. Protests overwhelmingly involved the economy.

The most effective forces employed the latest in media technology: instead of social media they used radio, which was also Roosevelt’s medium. Leaders of the protest movement developed radio audiences in the millions: Father Charles Coughlin, “The Radio Priest,” was known for his denunciations of FDR and calls for sharing the wealth. Huey Long, “The Kingfish,” governor and (many claimed) dictator of Louisiana, was now in the U.S. Senate and when he took to the radio, millions listened.

Their messages mirrored Long’s title for his movement: “Share Our Wealth.” It was totally focused on Wall Street, big finance, and inequities that were the worst since the dawn of the Industrial Era and the greatest since that time until today’s disparities.

Anger was raw and palpable, whether expressed in roiling ovations when Long or Coughlin addressed rallies of tens of thousands or in the sometimes-illiterate letters to the White House pleading for FDR to support the protest movement.

Long and Coughlin hated Roosevelt, as did Dr. Francis E. Townsend, the retired California doctor whose “Townsend Plan” promised every unemployed American over age 65 a payment of $200 a month, provided he or she promised to spend it within 30 days. Townsend would finance it with a 2 percent national sales tax; in the days before Social Security it gained an enormous following and politicians had to at least give it lip service in many districts.

All of these movements had two common denominators: they placed the blame for the Depression on the shoulders of Wall Street, bankers and financiers and wealthy investors; and they wanted to solve the problem with vigorous, expensive and centralized governmental programs and actions.

Occupy Wall Street might agree with these propositions, although the movement has yet to produce — and perhaps never will — any detailed program to take to Washington D.C. Tea Party sympathizers would not be in synch with the protest movements of the 1930s; their overriding hatred of President Obama is similar to that of Long, Coughlin, and Townsend, but Roosevelt had such strength among the disaffected and jobless that he was able to overcome the vitriol of the protest leaders and appeal to their rank-and-file to win re-election by a landslide in 1936.

Long was assassinated in September 1935 and Share Our Wealth died with the Kingfish. Coughlin began a dramatic turn to the right and lost credibility with increasingly intemperate speeches. Townsend’s movement failed to gain traction outside the West. An attempt to organize a third party with Congressman William Lemke of North Dakota as its candidate floundered when leaders of the protest movements quarreled with each other in what was at best a shaky alliance. Americans still believed in Roosevelt and the federal government.

Many of the protestors in 1935 were Democrats and had voted for Roosevelt (as many of the Occupy Wall Street appear to be Obama supporters from 2008). The Tea Party is solidly Republican and strongly conservative in social as well as economic matters; unlike the earlier protestors they are financially stable, above the average age of Americans, and supportive of Social Security and Medicare. They are protecting their gains and rejecting the concept of income equality. This is not a Share Our Wealth crowd. It is a “We Got Ours, Tough About You” crowd, yearning for a return to good old days that look better as they grow more distant.

Occupy Wall Street, in the words of environmental activist Bill McKibben, “owes a little something to the Tea Party, but it identifies the real enemy less in government than in the corporate power that so easily manipulates that government. And if the Tea Party speaks to an older generation deprived of the America its adherents remember, this new movement speaks to a younger generation robbed of the future it had been led to expect.”

The contrast between a rural and small-town Tea Party and an urban Occupy Wall Street was also a feature in the 1930s. In the words ofhistorian Alan Brinkley, the nation “was in the late stages of a great transformation already many decades old: a change from a largely rural, provincial, fragmented society to a highly urban, industrial one linked together by a network of large national institutions,” of which Wall Street was a symbol. “It had become increasingly difficult for individuals and communities to retain control of their own destinies in the face of the new power centers,” Brinkley noted in his 1983 book, Voices of Protest.

Much like today’s Tea Party, earlier movements attracted middle- to lower-middle-class people who feared loss of status and economic security. Unlike the Tea Party, however, they did not blame the federal government for their plight; they looked to Washington for help.

There is nothing President Obama can do to appease the Tea Party; membership is essentially the right wing of the Republican Party, and research by Robert Putnam and David Campbell indicates the Tea Party may have peaked in popularity and influence. But the group drove House Republicans this year to the brink of shutting down the government and destroyed any hopes of bipartisanship in Washington.

Obama let obstructionist Republicans push him to the right as well, and Occupy Wall Street is a symbol of anger on his left among Democrats and independents who see too little action from Washington.

Roosevelt faced similar challenges in 1935. Not only did he face the masses of the Long, Coughlin, and Townsend movements, he had serious defections among liberal and progressive politicians of both parties as he neared the 1936 campaign. “Roosevelt’s dream of advancing liberalism by forging a new electoral union of forward-thinking Democrats and progressive Republicans threatened to degenerate into a nightmare in which the various progressive forces in the country might so fragment as to lose all capacity for common political action,” noted historian David M. Kennedy in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Freedom from Fear (1999).

Noting the plethora of protestors, FDR’s close advisor Harold Ickes wrote in his diary, “The country is more radical than the Administration,” and FDR would “have to move further to the left to hold the country. . . . If Roosevelt can’t hold the country within reasonably safe limits no one else can possibly hope to do so. ... A breakdown on the part of the Administration would result in an extreme radical movement, the extent of which no one could foresee.” (quoted in Kennedy)

Anarchism has always been a minor but important strain in American politics; it was an early fear of the unruly mob that built into our Constitution all the checks and balances that so often result in gridlock government. The term “anarchy” has been used both in blogs and news stories describing Occupy Wall Street; but it has also appeared in descriptions of the Tea Party.

In a September 2010 article in SlateJacob Weisberg argued that the defining traits of the Tea Party are status anxiety (underlying anxiety about losing one's place in the country or of losing control of it to someone else) and anarchy (its antagonism toward any authority, its belligerent style of self-expression, and its lack of any coherent program or alternative to the policies it condemns).

Todd Gitlin, who as a one-time president of Students for a Democratic Society knows something about anarchy, sees the trait in Occupy Wall Street, but in a form quite different than Weisberg sees in the Tea Party: “In this recent incarnation, anarchism, for the most part, is not so much a theory of the absence of government, but a theory of self-organization, or direct democracy, as government.” Social media would appear to fit this description, with today’s revolutionaries communicating on Facebook instead of glued to the radio with Huey Long or Father Coughlin on a tear. But they want government to develop a spine and battle Big Money; the Tea Party marches to the infamouswords of Grover Norquist: “My goal is to cut government in half in 25 years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

Occupy Wall Street is unlikely to have the impact on Democrats that the Tea Party had in 2010 on Republicans, but it is a wakeup call that Democratic leaders must address. Conciliatory words have come from the president, congressional and local leaders, includingSeattle Mayor Mike McGinn. Obama saw this coming much later than Roosevelt did; early in 1935, FDR began drafting the dramatic legislative program known as the Second New Deal, including Social Security. Obama has only months to push his jobs bill and tax-the-rich proposal.

His proposals are dead-on-arrival in the Republican House. He will likely need more dramatic actions that don’t require Republican votes. He could replace Treasury Secretary Timothy Geitner, closely aligned with Wall Street; he could pull the plug totally on troops in Iraq and dramatically reduce forces in Afghanistan, converting the savings into infrastructure or education jobs.

Obama is being savaged by Republicans who scent victory and will have even more campaign funds than in past elections, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowing unlimited corporate donations to campaigns. He cannot rely on Roosevelt’s tactic in 1936 of ignoring his bland Republican opponent; this campaign will be much more like 1948 when President Harry S. Truman “gave ‘em hell” and snatched victory from defeat by realizing he couldn’t compromise with an intractable opposition.

Predicting the development and impact of Occupy Wall Street is no easier than it was to track the amazing developments of the Arab Spring. If it emulates the protests of 75 years ago it will reach a crescendo, have an impact, and fade away. As, perhaps, is becoming the fate of the Tea Party.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.